In April, raw milk stirred up a commotion in the Montana Legislature. The debate didn't die with the bill, but is in a stalemate. The future of raw milk could hold big things for small farmers if a compromise can be made.
Note: This article ran in the Lake County Leader July 4, 2013. It was picked up by the West Shore News and the Bigfork Eagle.
Want to buy something illegal but don’t know where to find it? Check Craigslist.
That is where many have gone to find raw milk, which was kept outlawed by the Montana State Legislature in April. You can’t find it by searching ‘raw milk’ but type in ‘milk’ and over 100 ads pop up. With some sifting, you will soon find ads for cow shares, to receive a portion of what the cow produces, and some more blatant ads for raw milk.
Any sale of raw milk in Montana is illegal, but the debate over raw milk isn’t black and white.
State Rep. Champ Edmunds, R-Missoula, sponsored the “raw milk bill” in the 2013 Montana State Legislature and it wasn’t long before it raised concerns from Montanans on both sides of the argument. The legislation would have allowed the sale of raw milk and raw milk products by small farms and ranches. House Bill 574 died when it fell one vote short of passing during a second reading in the state Senate.
Those against the bill argue that it posed a health risk to the public because the bill lacked regulatory measures and testing. Proponents of raw milk are quick to argue its health and healing benefits as well as stressing their right as a consumer to purchase any product they wish.
Both sides can agree on one thing, however. They both agree that the bill will resurface, possibly in the next legislative session. Some hope it will pass, some hope it dies another death, and others hope to find a bit of middle ground.
Rep. Dan Salomon, R-Ronan, worked on the bill with Edmunds. He said he was surprised the bill did not pass. Salomon owned a dairy until he got out of the industry in 2009. He said before the Montana Department of Livestock (MTDOL) made the sale of raw milk illegal he sold raw milk directly to customers from his farm. What started as a few customers ballooned into a lot of people wanting to purchase raw milk. Salomon said it was good for both parties.
“I’ve been drinking raw milk for about 50 years and I’m fine,” he said. “I think it’s a great product.”
When the MTDOL outlawed raw milk, any sale of raw milk by a licensed milk producer would have cost the dairy its license.
“They pretty much had us over a barrel,” Salomon said.
However, the backers of the bill are owners of small farms and ranches where dairy production is not their main business, Salomon said. With the standards and regulations the opposition wanted to tack onto H.B. 574, the cost of testing wouldn’t be economically feasible for farmers.
“To expect those folks to test their milk every week just wouldn’t work,” Salomon said.
Salomon would like the bill to rise from the ashes. He said a reasonable compromise could be reached between the MTDOL and small producers if both sides had a chance to sit down and hash out details. He said with a little legwork the bill could become viable.
In Idaho, the sale of raw milk through cow shares is legal. Salomon said parts of H.B. 574 were modeled after our neighbor state’s law. He said cow shares seem to be legal because if a person owns a part of the cow, they should have the right to get some of the product from that cow.
Though they exist, the legality of cow shares seems to be a gray area. However, any financial gain from raw milk is illegal. But Salomon said these small producers aren’t targeted by the MTDOL.
“I don’t know that they go driving up and down the road looking for someone with milk cows in their backyard,” he said.
The policing happens when someone ends up getting sick, which is why dairy farmers like Dan Daugherty from Charlo opposed the bill. Daugherty said he was not involved with the bill, but he felt the legislature made the right decision.
“I truly believe that milk needs to be pasteurized to protect the human population from being exposed to bacteria,” he said.
Daugherty said he was a member on a dairy board when MTDOL stopped licensing raw milk dairies, effectively outlawing them around 15 years ago.
If the issue comes up again, he said he thinks the powers-at-be will do the right thing.
“It will die a peaceful death like it did this year,” Daugherty said.
Laura Ginsburg isn’t so sure. Though she testified against the bill, she thinks it would be beneficial for groups on both sides to reach a mutually beneficial arrangement. Any time someone gets sick from raw milk it hurts the whole dairy industry, she said. It behooves commercial dairy farmers to deal with the issue even if they don’t benefit from the sale of raw milk, Ginsburg said.
Laura Ginsburg and Connie Surber are starting a dairy in St. Ignatius, called the Golden Yoke, the first new dairy in Montana in over 20 years.
The two haven’t started their dairy on a whim. Surber holds a degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech and Ginsburg has a master’s degree in environmental studies from the University of Montana where she wrote her thesis on Montana’s dairy industry and it’s unique quota system. Ginsburg was recently awarded a Fulbright scholarship to New Zealand to study the country’s dairy industry and dairy policy.
Ginsburg said her experience with raw milk is from a farm she worked on in Vermont, where they sold raw milk directly from the farm. Vermont has a two-tier system where those who sell less have to test less, and those who sell more are required to test more. Ginsburg said this system was not prohibitive to farmers while still ensuring the milk was safe to drink.
H.B. 574 didn’t include testing requirements like Vermont’s law does, which is why Ginsburg testified against it. She said people assume that if a cow looks healthy and they know the farmer, the milk must be safe, but that is not always the case.
“If cows aren’t tested and there are no requirements, you really don’t know what you’re drinking,” she said.
She said the legislation also penalized commercial farmers in the state who have had to abide by testing regulations and buy expensive equipment to guarantee the quality of their product.
“I just felt that was wrong,” Ginsburg said.
Salomon, Daugherty and Ginsburg know the raw milk issue will be back but nobody knows when it will be revisited by the state legislature. Daugherty and Salomon said they admire Ginsburg and Surber for starting a dairy in Montana, and both said raw milk legislation would benefit the new farm if it should pass.